Sometime over the weekend our TV went on the fritz. We’re not sure exactly what happened, but we lost our ability to change cable channels.
The TV itself turns on and off, so we believe the problem lies with one of our remote control units. Like many American households, we have more remote units than we need. The black one turns the TV on and off and controls the volume, the gray one changes the cable channels, and we don’t really know what the high-tech silver one does or, for that matter, how it got into our house. Nevertheless, we’re afraid to get rid of it for fear that it may eventually be needed to do something essential, like unlock America’s nuclear arsenal.
When the gray remote stopped working, Kish and I went through our entire array of electronic repair techniques. Unfortunately, that array consists solely of changing the batteries, then standing directly in front of the TV, pushing down on the channel-changing buttons with maximum force, and ultimately handing the remote control to the other person so they can do precisely the same thing. Those time-honored techniques didn’t work. And yesterday, when we returned from our brief trip to Pittsburgh, we clung to a forlorn hope that the remote control problem had gone away during our absence — either through miraculous self-repair or due to a visit from the remote control fairy. Those things didn’t happen, either.
Despite all of our efforts, our TV remain locked on The Golf Channel and its urgently whispered coverage of a tournament in Hawaii. It was riveting TV, but we decided to pass on the linksters and instead spend a TV-free weekend reading our books, chatting, and catching up on the news on the computer. It was nice — but today Kish goes out to get a new remote control unit so we can watch the new episode of True Detective.
Eugene Polley, 96, died on Sunday. Few Americans recognize his name, although virtually every American uses his invention on a daily — in some cases, hourly, or even more distressingly frequent — basis.
Polley held 18 U.S. patents, but his crown jewel was the wireless TV remote controller. In 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic, a gun-shaped, battery-powered device that changed the channel and turned the TV on and off through use of light signals — and the infernal “clicker” was born. The Flash-Matic was eventually replaced by sonic, infrared, and radio frequency devices, but Polley’s device set the nation firmly on the road to a land where Americans planted their ever-expanding keisters on their sofas and watched TV for hours where their only exercise was the twitch of the thumb muscle needed to change the channel. He even won an Emmy for his impact on television.
Consider the social consequences of the wireless TV remote controller. Not only has it served as a crucial enabling device for an increasingly overweight and lethargic population, it has also been the cause of countless family squabbles. How many wives have been brought to the boiling point by thoughtless husbands who annoyingly change channels repeatedly during commercial breaks — never spending more than a millisecond on the latest showing of The Shawshank Redemption, which for some reason is always being aired, or any other program as they zip through the dozens of channels offered by modern cable television services? How many brothers and sisters have fought over control of the clicker, and therefore whether the family watched Glee or Jackass? And how has the remote controller affected the brains, and shrinking, gnat-like attention spans, of children who have grown up with their thumb on the remote?
Few people can claim to have had such a profound impact on the social conditions of the world around them. Eugene Polley, R.I.P.